Buddy system

According to Gareth Gardner, if retail brands treat men like loyal friends and keep simplicity and football references foremost in their interior design, they will always score with their target market

Football. Is it a) the beautiful game? Or b) 90 turgid minutes of a ball being kicked around a field, save for the sight of men in shorts?

If you answered a) then you are probably a bloke. Those who responded b) are women or gay blokes. However, if you were really clever and said it is none of the above, soccer is in fact the new way to forge brand relationships with men, then you are a market researcher, brand consultant or designer.

Football and male bonding are being harnessed as ways of encouraging men to form relationships with brands, and not just for lager or lads’ mags. Even the top end of the market – such as Selfridges’ Men’s Superbrands space, which opens this month – is adopting a soccer vibe. Experts are also discovering that qualities that define male friendship – loyalty, reliability, shared adventure – can be manipulated to encourage men to choose a brand.

While men have long been reluctant shoppers (unless it was a trip to Halfords), they are starting to take an interest in buying clothes, and even grooming products. The potential market is huge, and with men, brands are for life. It’s no wonder designers are being asked to find ways of tapping into the male psyche.

Men’s Superbrands, on the first floor at London’s Selfridges, demonstrates how brand-savvy men have become. The 336m2 space, designed by Kitchen Rogers Design and incorporating boutiques for brands such as Dior Homme and Alexander McQueen, is intended as a backdrop to allow the clothes to take a starring role, yet with a strong identity in its own right. Its green display units were inspired by football pitches. ‘It’s something that men identify with, but it doesn’t patronise them,’ KRD partner Ab Rogers explains.

The main features of the space are the glossy black floor, the extra headroom (KRD has peeled away decades of cladding) and suspended clothes rails, which telescope up and down, allowing the space to be reconfigured in seconds. Combined with four motorised mannequins, which sporadically jerk into life, there are gadgets-aplenty to keep blokes happy.

Selfridges is a benchmark in how to form brand relationships with men, believes Alison Falconer, research director at Link Consumer Strategies. It’s a reliable source of all things stylish, and regularly hosts installations and events to keep punters stimulated.

Link has conducted qualitative research into how men associate with brands, and suggests friendship is key. Falconer says that men usually have a couple of very close friends plus a wider group of pals, while women have a wider circle of confidantes. For males, friendship is ritualised, perhaps including attending football matches. ‘There are points of contact reaffirming that they are all on a level,’ she says. If you ask a man who knows them best, they are most likely to say a friend rather than a love partner.

Falconer believes men think of brands as friends. Consequently, they react badly to brands that don’t reciprocate their loyalty, perhaps by changing packaging or radically altering store layout.

Initiation is another key aspect of male bonding, she adds. Long-term relationships are forged through common experience – the ‘two guys stuck up a mountain’ syndrome, she says. Brands can learn from this behaviour, she adds, and should seek opportunities to create rites of passage – perhaps an off-road car test drive.

Yet loyalty and reliability do not mean being boring. Once close male friendships are built, there is freedom to have adventures – which is where Selfridges excels. ‘The male role is to be the provider, a role model, and to step out of that with people you trust and act like a fool is liberating,’ she says. Brands might consider introducing elements of fun, ‘but you need to be trusted to do so, or you will be regarded as being too gimmicky’, Falconer warns.

London’s Dunhill store on Jermyn Street, designed in-house, has a reputation for reliability, plus extensive heritage. It can afford to be playful, displaying vintage cars in the window or hanging model aeroplanes from the ceiling. The interior plays on male bonding with a humidor, where loyal customers meet to smoke and drink coffee.

Global marketing director Paddy Byng believes men are different to women when choosing brands, and are less aesthetically but more functionally driven. It’s a view shared by Link’s research, which was inspired by the nascent male grooming market. The study concluded with the definition of four grooming groups, ranging from men who are presentable to those who make statements with mascara.

With men displaying such loyalty, it’s hard to persuade them to switch brands. Falconer says reassurance that you are making the right move can be provided by ‘brand backfill’ – information such as technical specifications.

Such brand context is in evidence at the newly opened G-Room store on London’s Carnaby Street, which claims to be the UK’s first dedicated men’s grooming retail format. Many men are unfamiliar with under-eye gel, so the store features ample information and expert advice to comfort customers.

Conceived and designed by Pikefell managing director Michael Pike, the store features a mix of materials and colours chosen with men in mind, designed to be soothing and non-challenging. The palette of colours includes grey and cyan, and materials include reconstituted timber, steel bolts and steel cables, giving the space an industrial feel. The butch atmosphere is softened by coloured and textured laminates, and clear Perspex display pods. Underfoot, dark wooden floors echo a gentleman’s club.

The interior reclaims masculine items such as toolboxes as display cases, and the main route through the store is defined by a series of timber portal frames, a nod to – you’ve guessed it – goal posts.

Further reassurance about the brand is provided by positioning grooming products next to familiar goods that define similar lifestyles, such as Fred Perry T-Shirts. ‘By associating grooming products with other brands, it helps men to form a relationship with them,’ Pike says.

G-Room is split into seven lifestyle areas defining a range of different types of men. This approach is applauded by Steve Collis, managing director of consultancy JHP. ‘Men want brands to reinforce aspects of their personalities,’ he says. ‘A car says something about how you perceive yourself.’

When JHP refurbished Austin Reed’s Regent Street flagship, it found a conservative, pragmatic customer base. As a result, all shirts are merchandised together to make selection easy and keep the customer loyal, while an atrium was inserted to improve wayfinding. The style is contemporary, comforting and aspirational.

Collis believes men respond to the auras of ‘sex, sport and success’ in brands. ‘It’s much more overt with men than women,’ he says. ‘They don’t necessarily compete with each other, but choose brands to belong to, like they might choose a football team. Men are not rutting reindeer, there’s loyalty among them.’

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